Education — To bolster language skills, many schools in Oregon are changing their approach to teaching English, focus on grammar

Reading, math, science — they’re all priorities for today’s public schools. But there’s something more basic that young students have to master first.

Oregon elementary school teachers say basic competency in language is a necessary foundation to meet rising standards, which culminate in the state’s goal that all students should finish high school, starting in 2025.

“Because we’re humans and we need language to interact, and that’s how we take in information and we output information, they don’t have the language in order to perform academically,” said Maria Popii, who teaches English as a second language at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland, where a high percentage of kids speak another language at PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Classroom success - A focus on grammar has helped some students prepare for the English Language Proficiency Assesment, otherwise known as the ELPA.

To bolster language skills, many schools in Oregon are changing their approach to the subject.

Take first-grade student Octavio Zurita, who speaks Spanish at home with his mom and dad and younger sister and brother. Octavio says the language he speaks with friends depends on where they are: “When we play in the park, we speak Spanish. In the class, we speak English.”

In years past, Earl Boyles would’ve taught Octavio English by pulling him out of class, so that he could spend concentrated time with an ESL teacher, like Popii.

“I would go into classrooms, I would take the ESL students, and bring them into my room and teach them for half an hour a day,” she said. “I would give them English instruction — very general English instruction. So, oftentimes, it had nothing to do with what they were doing in the classroom. It wasn’t related to their content. It was strictly language at their level. It mostly included some grammar lessons.”

The focus on grammar helped prepare students for a standardized test called the “ELPA” — the English Language Proficiency Assessment. It lets teachers see how students are progressing, and ultimately, if they’re ready to leave the English support program entirely.

Oregon students who advance out of the ESL program actually outperform the state average on standardized tests. But there are far more students from foreign language backgrounds who don’t show that kind of progress. They tend to do worse in the tested subjects of math and reading.

Schools in the David Douglas district, which includes Earl Boyles, recently introduced a support system aimed at helping students in the bottom 20 percent, academically.

Popii says she noticed a pattern.

“Well guess who most of those students are in third, fourth, and fifth grade?” she asked. “They’re ESL students or former ESL students. So these are students who are not progressing throughout the day.”

Language instruction is now in the classroom, and that has meant big changes to what regular classroom teachers do.

At Earl Boyles, students split up by language level, as measured on an “express test.” First-grade students who need the most help are placed with teacher Karen McDonald, who uses a call-and-response method that is a hallmark of this approach, saying a phrase and asking the kids to repeat it in unison.

When Popii pulled kids out of class, she would make sure they did lots of speaking in English. Popii would only see five or six students at a time, so getting them to speak wasn’t hard.

But in a class of 25 or more, it’s tough to give each kid a chance to talk. And Popii says speaking English — saying the words out loud — is integral to learning English. That’s why the call-and-response method is rising in popularity.

It’s especially good for drawing out kids who don’t have great English skills, and can be reluctant to speak up.

That’s the case with Zurita, according to his mother, Azucena.

“He knows how to respond, he knows the answers, but he doesn’t want to volunteer,” she said.

Officials say it’s too early to draw conclusions. Popii says she’s seeing mixed results. For example, the school’s test results on the ELPA actually declined.

According to Popii, the drop was not a surprise. It was the first year teachers used the new approach, and it’s less tailored to that test. She said she is happier with how students did on a broader measure of language. About one-third of Earl Boyles’ language learners showed gains on the express test. But Popii says students from English-speaking backgrounds are showing even stronger gains.

“Sixty-four percent of them grew a level. So that’s language instruction that those students would not have gotten in our original pull-out model,” she said.

Those language skills are considered key building blocks for higher-level skills — like applied math and critical thinking — that all students are expected to have.

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